Heart disease is the leading killer of adults in the U.S., and, according to The New York Times, Americans of South Asian extraction are four times as likely as members of the general population to develop it, and tend to do so a decade sooner. The Times article cited a seven-year study by University of California San Francisco and Northwestern University named Mediators of Atherosclerosis in South Asians Living in America, or Masala, which followed more than 900 south Asians in Chicago and the Bay Area. They suffered from high blood pressure, high triglycerides, abnormal cholesterol, and type-2 diabetes at relatively low body weights.
I have a feeling it isn’t just my Indian friends in Silicon Valley who need to worry; heart disease is a common problem in the business world for all groups. Technology executives are notorious for believing they have special powers and are indestructible. They become obsessed with making money and achieving success — to the detriment of their health.
I know because I am one of them.
I started a company back in 1997, which became a hot startup. All was great until the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11 compounded the economic shock in 2001. After a year of extremely long hours and incredible teamwork, we turned the company around and were on track for 200 percent annual growth rates and 25 percent profit margins. I was determined to make it as big a success as my previous startup, which we had taken public, and believed that nothing could stop me.
I was wrong. My body could stop me.
On a flight home from Mexico, where I went to take a short celebratory vacation, I started to feel a shooting pain in my left arm. It was as if electricity were passing through my veins. I ignored it — as I had ignored the back pain that I’d felt on the cruise to Cancún and my extreme nausea after climbing the Chichen Itza pyramid — because I thought I was indestructible.
Fortunately, my wife, Tavinder, insisted I see a doctor as soon as the flight landed. I had not been sick in a decade and didn’t have a personal physician. I didn’t know whom to call. So we just went to the nearest hospital: The University of North Carolina Medical Center. There, the nurse strapped an EKG monitor to my chest, reviewed the results, and started making phone calls. Then she pulled Tavinder aside to talk to her.
Before I could understand what was going on, doctors had put me on a stretcher and taken me into an operating room, where I was sedated. I woke up to learn I had been having a major heart attack and needed placement of two stents in my arteries. The doctor said if I had checked in two hours later, I would not have checked out: I would have ended up in the morgue.
I share this story because I want others who are as careless about their health as I was to realize they, too, are vulnerable. You may not subscribe to anything called a work-life balance, but your body certainly does. You need to monitor and nurture your body. I used to have an obsession with building businesses and forgot about building health. I was focused on the destination rather than on the journey. I caution you to not do the same. Get regular checkups; exercise; meditate; learn to relax. Do the things that are fun and good for the soul.
As it turned out, I had taken damage to my heart and couldn’t go back to the rough and tough world of corporate management. So I took a year off and then did what Tavinder recommended: focused on what brought me the greatest personal satisfaction. She insisted that I forget about earning big money and that we make do with less.
I became an academic so that I could share my knowledge and experience with students. I teach them about advances in technology that will help solve humanity’s paramount challenges.
It wasn’t easy to crack the code of getting accepted into academia, but I figured it out. By volunteering my time in mentoring students and faculty members, doing research that was meaningful, and applying my entrepreneurial skills to academic problems, I was able to gain respect and acceptance.
A decade after my heart attack, I had appointments at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, Harvard Law School, UC-Berkeley School of Information, Stanford Law School, Emory University, and Singularity University — all at the same time. Now I just teach at Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering in Silicon Valley and help out at Harvard Law School.
All this seems like a lot. How could this new life not be as stressful, you may ask?
I’ve learned to focus on doing what is most productive and effective while carefully listening to my body. When I start getting embroiled in heated debates and feeling stressed, I just turn everything off and disconnect from the world. I simply tell my colleagues and friends that I am not well and need to cancel all meetings for a day or more. I take it easy: go for a long hike, take a vacation somewhere, or just stay at home and read. What I’ve realized is that, just as I am not indestructible, neither am I not indispensable. The world can manage without me. No success is worth the toll it can take on your health. No amount of money can compensate for the time away from your family.
Remember to enjoy the journey; and know that sometimes you can have more happiness with less.
Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon School of Engineering, Silicon Valley, and Harvard Law School.